Sometime in the spring of 2012 Al Bunting received a message imploring him to publicly endorse America’s warplane of the future.
Bunting, a retired senior Air Force officer and administrator for the tiny New Jersey coastal town of Sea Girt, was not alone. Across the Garden State in 2011 and 2012, government officials, political organizers and even religious leaders received similar messages, all asking for the recipient to speak out on behalf of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, meant to replace thousands of existing U.S. warplanes at an immediate cost of more than $400 billion. The plane had run into serious technical problems that heaped cost and delays onto the program, and needed a public boost.
The messages were just one facet of a high-stakes public relations campaign, paid for by Lockheed Martin and overseen by an interlocking network of powerful PR firms. The paid, pro-F-35 advocacy also involved, to some extent, a mysterious blog with access to suspiciously high levels of F-35 testing data.
The message to Bunting worked. The retired officer endorsed the F-35, despite the jet’s problems. So did the New Jersey state assembly, in a June 2011 resolution calling on the U.S. Congress to fully fund the F-35. The resolution, supported by lawmakers who had received funds from Lockheed’s PR reps, used language provided by the reps.
Despite more than a decade of tortured development that has seen repeated delays, cost increases, performance downgrades and groundings owing to technical flaws, the F-35 — history’s priciest weapons program — survives and even thrives, continuing to receive no less than $10 billion a year from a cash-strapped Pentagon.
Lockheed’s PR efforts no doubt help protect the Joint Strike Fighter. As Bunting’s story shows, those efforts run deep, reaching into unlikely dens of state politics, far outside the Pentagon or the Capitol, and the obscure warrens of the internet. Piecing together the endorsement requests, government lobbying, donations and pro-F-35 blogs helps explain how the much-criticized F-35 stays flying. (end of excerpt)
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